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What's Fair?
Conclusion: The Future of Huntingby Don H. Meredith © 2001
(published in the April/May 2001 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

Fair chase is about how we see ourselves as hunters.

"Fair Chase is the ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over such animals."Boone and Crockett Club

Over the last few months, I've been writing a series of articles about the venerable principle of "Fair Chase" — a discussion prompted by a presentation biologist and management consultant Edward Hanna made at the Premier's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage in Ottawa this last August. In previous columns, I related how the general principle is accepted by most hunters but disagreements emerge when an attempt is made to describe a working definition. The concept is fraught with inconsistencies, and seldom is the principle used to actually set regulations.

If fair chase 1) is not truly fair to the animals hunters pursue, 2) does not apply to many forms of legal hunting, and 3) is not used to set most regulations, then what benefit does the principle have to the hunter and hunting? Has the Boone and Crockett Club been wrong all these years?

The Boone and Crockett Club's definition fits only one type of North American hunting, so-called "sport" or recreational hunting. Such hunting originated in Europe where a certain class of people developed that did not rely on game for food and could afford the time to recreate themselves by hunting for sport. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this kind of hunting is the fox hunt in Britain where foxes are hunted with hounds and often released after being run to ground. As pointed out by Ed Hanna, despite the use of the fair chase principle to justify the continuation of this traditional activity, the British parliament is about to pass legislation that will ban hunting foxes with hounds.

Now, we may argue among ourselves as hunters whether running foxes to ground with hounds is really fair chase. But what's important here is the perception people have of such an activity and the use of the principle to justify it. Again, as I previously argued in this series, hunting is not fair to the hunted individuals. By arguing that it is, we open ourselves to the attack we are "playing" with the prey, that in so doing we are causing avoidable pain and suffering and demonstrating that hunting is not really necessary to our existence as a society (otherwise we wouldn't "play"). That's how fox hunting is about to be banned in Britain, and how catch-and-release fishing was banned in Germany.

Here in North America hunting has evolved in different directions. First of all, we have a significant aboriginal population that has the right to practise subsistence hunting, where fairness to prey is not an issue. Second, many traditional styles of recreational hunting have developed that stretch the fair chase principle, or ignore it (e.g., baiting, hunting with dogs, hunting from ambush). Perhaps we shouldn't be emphasizing fair chase to the non-hunting public. Perhaps we should be stressing other aspects of hunting. Ed Hanna argues that hunters are on much firmer ground justifying their activities based on the more legitimate claim that hunting embodies important traditional cultural and environmental values. I believe he's right. In this day and time, the preservation of cultural and environmental values (connectedness to the land) rings well with an urban public largely estranged from their roots and their sense of home.

So, if fair chase should not be used to defend hunting, where should it be used? I think it should be used where it was intended in the first place — in relation to our personal behavior, how we wish to see ourselves as individual hunters. If we are subsistence hunters, hunting to feed our families, we kill in the quickest and easiest way possible because we cannot afford to do otherwise. We show respect for the animals we kill, after the fact, in ritual and ceremony that not only honors the spirit of those animals but reinforces the connection our families have with the land. If we are recreational hunters, hunting to re-establish or maintain our connection with wild places, we show respect for our prey by ensuring the animals are taken using methods that truly test our skills as hunters and that allow us to learn something about the lives these animals live. Both kinds of ethical hunters honor their prey by ensuring that all the animal is put to good use.

"The ethical hunter must make many fair-chase choices," Jim Posewitz wrote in his now classic book, Beyond Fair Chase (1994, Falcon Press, Helena, Montana). "While local custom and practice need to be respected, it is equally important to be honest about the result of these practices. If there is doubt, advantage must be given to the animal being hunted."

Those are personal decisions that go beyond law and tradition. In many cases, they will depend on the circumstances, your experience, how you were trained as a hunter and the example you wish to leave for others. As long as you are acting within the law, it is difficult for other hunters to question your decisions. However, we must refrain from publicly describing these decisions as being fair to the prey animal. Hunting is not fair to the individual hunted animal. That animal does not choose to be hunted. However, hunting does confer many benefits to the hunter, including maintaining cultural and environmental awareness. Those are the values we should be stressing. Fair chase is merely a way to obtain those values.


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